Artists to watch at the Jazz Fest

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Trombone Shorty performing at Parcel 5 in 2019. (Photo: Thom Bell/courtesy of RIJF)

After a two-year hiatus, the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival begins its 19th edition this week.

With 325 shows, including 130 free events, the festival runs from June 17-25. Outdoor and indoor performances will take place at 19 locations in downtown Rochester.

Termed a transition year by Producers John Nugent and Marc Iacona, the festival offers more space for shows. All headliner events, for instance, are free and presented at two outdoor stages –Midtown Stage at Parcel 5 and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park. More than 1,750 artists, from legendary performers to rising stars will take the stage.

The Rochester Beacon will highlight shows throughout the festival. Here are some artists to watch.

Frank De Blase’s picks

Nikki Hill

Nikki Hill (Photo: Nikki Hill)

Nikki Hill is one of the best roots-rock singers I have ever seen and I’ve seen quite a few. I’m not just talking about the stars of now, but of all time. I rate her up there with Wanda Jackson, Barbara Pittman, Etta James.

I first saw Miss Hill about five years ago when she and her band blew through town for  some more door-removal at the Dinosaur’s expense.

The buzz hasn’t stopped since, at least the hive she unleashed in my head hasn’t. Everyone’s still carrying on about the girl with the voice; a voice that’s part sweet seduction, part sweeter threat. At 30, Hill is stiletto sharp and bouffant cool, flamier than Little Richard (or perhaps more appropriately, Esquerita), raunchier than Sharon Jones, more straight-ahead than Rachel Nagy of the Detroit Cobras. More than a couple of you are gonna fall in love or a reasonable facsimile thereof at this performance.

Performance: June 17

Venue: Jazz Street Stage

Time: 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. 

Tickets: Free

Hot Club of Cowtown

Despite its abbreviated three-piece lineup, Hot Club of Cowtown is the pistol-packin’ ruler of Western swing and all the genres that lead up to it. The band puts forth a classic array of tempos and grooves with an understated allegiance and aplomb. It’s like Django Reinhardt in the tumbleweeds, or Bob Wills sipping coffee at a pre-war Parisian café.

HCC treads lightly whenever it slips into a genre, offering nothing in the way of ownership through interpretation or variation. It doesn’t bogart the tune. This band performs any style from any era and maintains its history and identity. Neither the band, nor the song is compromised. And yet HCC is truly one of a kind with its swingin’ swagger. 

As the name alludes, HCC plays hot jazz: music inspired by Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club of France with a powerful lean toward Western swing. The Austin group — vocalist and fiddle player Elana James, guitarist Whit Smith, and bassist Jake Erwin — has been circling the globe since the release of its first album, “Swingin’ Stampede,” in 1998. A dozen albums and several solo outings later and Hot Club of Cowtown rides on still; its versatility and virtuosity abound.

Performance: June 17

Venue: RIJF Big Tent

Time: 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. 

Tickets: $30/Club pass

Performance: June 18

Venue: Hyatt Regency, Rochester

Time: 8:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. 

Tickets: $30/Club pass

Samantha Fish

Though lumped into the blues by association, those that know, Samantha Fish  is a straight ahead blues rocker. Picture Johnny Winter in a dress slinging one of those cigar box guitars.This 33-year-old blues chanteuse plays some ugly blues for all you beautiful people whether you deserve it or not. Fish will rock you raw.

Performance: June 18

Venue: Midtown stage at Parcel 5

Time: 7:00

Tickets: Free

Lew Tabackin

Lew Tabackin (Photo: Lew Tabackin)

As you peruse this list of suggestions, you’ll find that a lot of the artists, a lot of the  picks, fit in a guilt by association. Like Lew Tabackin. He played, early in his career, with Tal Farlow before falling in with Mr. Hidie-Hidie-Ho Cab Calloway who incidentally was born in Swillburg in 1905. But he already had me with Tom Waits. Tabackin played on Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night.”

Tabackin colored his flute and tenor sax mastery with the spice of the countless  heavyweights he’s rubbed elbows with like  Les and Larry Elgart, Maynard Ferguson, Joe Henderson, Chuck Israels, Thad Jones Mel Lewis, and Clark Terry.

Dig. 

Performance: June 17

Venue: Wilder Room

Time: 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. 

Tickets: $30/Club pass

Bill Frisell

Adventurous guitar player Bill Frisell plays pretty much in a trance state. The difference is he responds to the musicians that he shares the stage with, whatever he can get his ears on. At times I’ve seen Frisell tweak the nobs of his amp so much giving it a reverse spelunking approach. It’s as if he’s using the amp to play the  guitar in reverse. Sure keeps you guessing.

Performance: June 19

Venue: Temple Theater

Time: 7:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. 

Ravi Coltrane Freedom Trio

Everyone has got their eyes on the upcoming talent but don’t let’s lose sight of the legends, the royals. You know I’m talking about Ravi Coltrane. The man is elegant, the man is full of sly exploration. And he’s the pride of John Coltrane’s loins.

Performance: June 19

Venue: Theater at Innovation Square

Time: 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Tickets: $30/Club pass

Booker T Presents Soul Stax Revue  

It’s simple, really. You take Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees Booker T out of the mix and you get no Memphis soul, no southern soul, no nothin’.

As the Mark-keys, the band was the go to for bands putting out fine funk, the Stax trademark. The  classic line-up — Booker T Jones, organ, Steve Cropper, guitar  and the late great Donald “Duck” Dunn chomped off a funky groove on a trick bag full-o-hits with artists like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, and Rufus Thomas. And you can’t forget their 1962 mega hit “Green Onions.” Cool daddy-O.

Performance: June 23

Venue: Midtown Stage at Parcel 5

Time: 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. 

Tickets: Free

Davina and the Vagabonds

Davina and the Vagabonds (Photo: Davina and the Vagabonds)

When the local constabulary puts the squeeze on your favorite brothel and a raust seems imminent, the cue for you to get up and get out is left to the piano player. In this case we’re talkin’ about Davina and the Vagabonds, a delightfully vintage ensemble spilling out of Preservation Hall and led by pianist -singer Savina Sowers who boogies, woogies and wails as if she owns the place.

Performance: June 24

Venue: Theater at Innovation Square

Time: 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Tickets: $30/Club pass

Performance: June 25

Venue: Montage Music Hall

Time: 6:00 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Tickets: $30/Club pass

G Love and Special Sauce

Garrett Dutton (G Love) fronts the tres hip hip hop Delta Blues mash-up G Love and Special Sauce and it’s the perfect blend. Even with the two main ingredients vying for dominance singled out, one aspect can’t simply go it alone.

But don’t take my word for it, just give a spin to his latest “Philadelphia Mississippi,” I mean c’mon it’s produced by the North Mississippi All-stars’ Luther Dickinson  It’s hip hoppy steeped in The Special Sauce’s special sauce. It’s sloppy as a four-year-old eating spaghetti with their hands.

Performance: June 25

Venue: Midtown Stage, Parcel 5

Time: 9 p.m.

The Pickle Mafia

Post-pandemic spree and a lot of musicians in the ‘‘gig” economy started to scramble for jobs. Bartending, human pin-jockey, pumping gas, and stripping all helped in supplementing their income. Some even went as far as a side-hustle like like jazz pianist Charlie Lindner who pickles pickles on the sly.

Pickle Mafia (Photo: Pickle Mafia)

“Let the pickles sell the music” cries the man. We could get into pickles vs. piano metaphors at this point but I’m not sure the use of garlic in composition and piano keys being roughed up will support each other. But then…

Performance: June 21

Venue: Midtown Stage, Parcel 5

Time: 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The Able Bodies

John Viviani and Eli Flynn in Rochester-based Able Bodies cut to the quick with bursts of  multiple singles in release mode. It’s like a new wave canon fixing to launch. They move forward like a spacey take on the stranglers and a spicy. take take on Ultravox.

Make sure and gaze at the night time sky while they play. I think the stars will feel a lot closer now — the ones on stage anyway. They play out like a dream. If only your Atari could play love songs.

Performance: June 21

Venue: Midtown Stage, Parcel 5

Time: 5 p.m.


Jess Williams’ picks

Bob James

Smooth jazz, jazz fusion, electronic, contemporary classical, television soundtrack, hip-hop–very few artists can say they have been involved in such a wide array of music genres. 

Yet, jazz pianist Bob James’ fingerprints can be found across all of them. You may know him from his successful smooth jazz solo album “One,” or maybe from his involvement in the group Fourplay, or maybe you’d recognize the theme from the TV show “Taxi.” 

Perhaps you know him from his electric piano being sampled in a number of old-school hip-hop hits like “Peter Piper” by Run-DMC or “Daytona 500” by Ghostface Killah. While he probably won’t be inviting Eric B. and Rakim on stage to perform their classic song “Follow the Leader,” James’ fluent and measured keys reflect his years of experience as a celebrated jazz musician. 

Performance: June 17

Venue: Temple Theater

Time: 7:00 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Ranky Tanky

Ranky Tanky (Photo: Ranky Tanky)

A five-piece American Roots outfit from Charleston, S.C., Ranky Tanky is a relatively new group, but soulful gospel jazz has not gone unnoticed. Their self-titled debut album topped the jazz charts in 2017, and their most recent release, “Good Time,” won the Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album two years ago. 

Ranky Tanky is backed by some very talented performers like the show-stopping lead vocalist Quiana Parler. The group has a deep understanding and respect for the music of the Gullah culture that they take inspiration from. Gullah culture encompasses African American tradition from coastal South Carolina. 

Performance: June 18

Venue: Kilbourn Hall

Time: 6:00 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Tickets: $35

Performance: June 19

Venue: Hyatt Regency Rochester

Time: 7:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.

Tickets: $30 

NYChillharmonic

Have you ever wanted to hear a progressive-rock band with full string, brass, and percussion sections? Probably not, but now that I say it, sounds sick right? Well, I’ve got the band for you. 

The NYChillharmonics are bringing their intricate, full sound to the Jazz Festival this year. The 18-piece group fronted by multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Sara McDonald, will have a lot of moving parts, a lot of complex song-structures, weird harmonies, and layering, building, and crescendoing that will only be more stunning after being played by a band of 18. 

I am very excited to see how this massive prog-rock band operates live. 

Performance: June 18

Venue: Glory House International

Time: 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Spyro Gyra

Jazz fusion veterans from humble beginnings in Buffalo, Spyro Gyra provides the counterpoint against the derogatory description of “elevator music” that many of their contemporaries fall victim to. 

Over the past 45 years, Spyro Gyra has done it all, from the Weather Report-inspired early hits from the late ‘70s, like the caribbean flavored “Morning Dance”, and the irresistibly funky “Shaker Song”, to the more genre-bending explorations in R&B fusion, and most recently, jazz covers of classic-rock songs. 

If anything is consistent over the more than 30 albums spanning their discography, it’s their fun attitude and relaxing aesthetic. While not as high-brow as many of the artists they will be sharing the stage with over this upcoming week, Spyro Gyra’s signature upbeat groovy sounds will surely brighten up your Monday evening.

Performance: June 20

Venue: Midtown stage, Parcel 5

Time: 9:00 p.m.

Tickets: Free

Sheila E.

Sheila E. (Photo: Sheila E.)

Sheila E. is quite the unique performer. Boasting 80s dance-pop hits: “The Glamorous Life,” “The Belle of St. Mark,” and “A Love Bizarre,” The queen of percussion has all the marks of an 80s pop star, but with a skill that sets her apart. Her solid pop vocals are complemented by the drumming abilities that caught the attention of Prince all those years ago. Singing from the throne of her drum set, Sheila’s impassioned performances are accentuated by her powerful drum solos. Just look up any recording from when she opened for Prince on his Purple Rain tour, and you’ll be greeted by the best that the 80s has to offer. Flashy, high-production performances with smooth dancing, colorful lights – and best of all – light-up drumsticks. 

Performance: June 22

Venue: Midtown stage, Parcel 5

Time: 9 p.m.

Tickets: Free

Vanessa Collier

Vanessa Collier is a naturally gifted performer. Doubling as a saxophonist and a vocalist, Collier’s blues performances are striking, and unforgettable. 

Like the great blues musicians of the past, Collier has the rare and valuable ability of capturing an entire audience with every note. Her voice is covered in soul, her saxophone solos are imbued with raw expression, and her songwriting is nothing to scoff at either. Don’t miss her performance.

Performance: June 25

Venue: Big Tent

Time: 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Tickets: $30

RINA

RINA (Photo: RINA)

A rising jazz pianist from Japan, RINA graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2018. Since then, she has already won many Jazz awards, including placing second at the Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition, and has completed a residency playing lead piano on the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” 

Coming off of the release of her debut 2020 album, RINA is only just getting started. Her elegant piano playing is proof of RINA’s connection to the instrument and to her craft. Her fingers dance over the keys resulting in a mesmerizing sound that approaches transcendence. 

Performance: June 23

Venue: Hatch Recital Hall

Time: 5:45 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.

Tickets: $30

The Cookers

Living up to their name, the Cookers cook up some of the most seamless jazz within the hodge-podge that is the post-bop genre.

A group of seven experienced jazz musicians with a sense of chemistry and collaboration unheard of for a septet, the Cookers now have a tight 6 albums under their belt, including 2021’s “Look Out!”, and the 2014 iTunes Jazz CD of the year, “Time and Time Again.”

If you’ve been looking for that classic hard bop sound, check out The Cooker’s forward-thinking take on the 60’s jazz that they grew up on.

Performance: June 17

Venue: Kilbourn Hall

Time: 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.

Tickets: $35

Kind Folk

Kind Folk (Photo: Kind Folk)

After the release of their debut album, the Brooklyn-formed quartet broke apart as members split among locations across the country, and a pandemic soon followed.

Kind Folk finally made their glorious return months ago with “Head Towards The Center,” an emotional and expressive collection of pieces inspired by the pandemic. This project is an impressive, meaningful, and effecting journey, with understated purpose at every turn. Keep an ear out for the soft contemplative sounds of Kind Folk.

Performance: June 18

Venue: Wilder Room

Time: 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Under the Surface

Coming all the way from the Netherlands is folk group Under the Surface, whose stunningly beautiful compositions reflect dutch folk tradition with notes of jazz and ambient. One of the most impressive things about this group is their fully-improvised concert approach, which they have perfected since they started touring internationally.

In March the group released their new album “Miin Triuwa,” which fully dove into Dutch folk music, even using old Dutch language, committing to a sound they have been influenced by since their inception. 

Performance: June 19

Venue: Glory House International

Time: 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Andy McKee

Andy McKee (Photo: Andy McKee)

Andy McKee is one of the most proficient solo guitarists you’ll ever witness. He plays his guitar like it is 5 different instruments at once, utilizing creative percussive sounds, mind-breaking technique, and bending the instrument to his will in amazing ways.

I’m pretty convinced this guy has a pair of invisible hands, there’s no way he does what he does with just two.

Performance: June 19

Venue: Midtown Stage, Parcel 5

Time: 7:00 p.m.

Kaisa’s Machine

Finnish bass player Kaisa Mäensivu fronts a quartet which excels at luscious jazz excellence. Kaisa’s compositions are fun, groovy, intricate, and stylish.

Also, I’ve noticed a disappointing lack of vibraphone on this year’s jazz fest lineup, but thankfully Kaisa’s band has me covered with the talented Severi Pyysalo. The group only has one album out, “Songs in the key of K,” but I am looking forward to a 2023 release, especially after I go see them at the festival this year.

Performance: June 20

Venue: Glory House International

Time: 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Connie Han

Connie Han is an incredibly versatile pianist. Her compositions are well-crafted, her technique is on-point, her performances are focused, her solos are electric, and she’ll nail whatever style she chooses to push forward.

Han thrives in the live atmosphere, her personality shining through at all points of her performance – often showing expression in body language and facial expression in addition to the music itself. Her control over the piano is an impressive sight. 

Performance: June 21

Venue: Hatch Recital Hall

Time: 5:45 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Emmaline

Emmaline (Photo: Emmaline)

Emmaline’s rich alto voice calls back to many of the greatest vocal jazz performers, but she mostly pulls from the Billie Holiday book of controlled, sweetly piercing vocals.

Emmaline found a lot of her success through social media platforms where she made consistent uploads showing off her vocal talents through jazz covers of pop songs. Gathering a following quickly, Emmaline’s growing career is both proof of her undeniable vocal talent and the power of social media.

Performance: June 22

Venue: Hyatt Regency Rochester Ballroom

Time: 7:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Performance: June 23

Venue: RIJF Big Tent

Time: 8:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Helen Sung

Despite being trained as a classical pianist until she switched to jazz in college, Helen Sung has a very deep, clear understanding of jazz language. Sung excels in collaboration, composition, and improvisational ability, making her an elite and captivating performer.

Her most recent project called “Quartet+” – name inspired by the collaboration between her band of 4 and the Harlem quartet – has Sung performing a collection of both originals, and songs composed by women composers. It’s an ambitious album that is executed masterfully, making it one of her most notable albums to date.

Performance: June 22

Venue: Hatch Recital Hall

Time: 5:45 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Itamar Borochov Quartet

Itamar Borochov presents a unique fusion of modal jazz, and the sacred music of Jewish groups he spent his upbringing around, including that of the Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi communities.

Borochov’s trumpet playing exudes the modal freedom of Miles Davis but with a middle-eastern flair, making his performances beautifully meditative. Itamar Borochov seems to play in a trance-like state, likely the effect of the sacred sounds he channels through his performances. Don’t miss this unique trumpet player.

Performance: June 23

Venue: Wilder Room

Time: 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Jonathan Scales Fourchestra

The steel drum is an instrument with an unfortunate fate. Its distinct, metallic ring is boxed into a vague minimizing sense of “tropica” which limits the instrument from being used in more diverse contexts.

Jonathan Scales is one of the steel drum artists pushing back against that, using the instrument in unusual ways. If you have never seen a professional steel drum musician play before, be sure to check this one out. You are in for a treat. 

Performance: June 24

Venue: Montage Music Hall

Time: 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Tickets: $30

Julia Nunes

Julia Nunes (Photo: Julia Nunes)

Julia Nunes has had a very interesting career. A Fairport native, she got her start online in 2007 on YouTube. On that video-sharing site she posted covers and original songs where she accompanied herself on various instruments.

Her videos blew up (as much as they could for a website as small as YouTube at the time) and she was asked by Ben Folds, my personal musical hero, to open for him on his tour. Nunes continued making music, and continued growing on internet spaces, achieving a rare longevity online due to her engaging songwriting and bouncy indie appeal. 

Performance: June 24

Venue: City of Rochester MLK Park Stage

Time: 7:00 p.m.

Tickets: Free

Drum Battle: Kenny Washington vs. Joe Farnsworth

Two drumming beasts in the jazz world will be facing off in a drum battle. This exciting, playful, heated event is one that Kenny Washington and Joe Farnsworth have done before, yielding spectacular results. The battle will be formatted as a regular small ensemble set but with the drummers trading off solos the entire time. If I happen to catch this event, I’ll be sure to note down a winner. 

Performance: June 25

Venue: Theater at Innovation Square

Time: 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Tickets: $30

High School Jazz Bands

One of my favorite offerings of the Rochester Jazz Fest are the invitations they give to High School Jazz bands in the area. I was lucky enough to perform at the 2016 Jazz Fest when I was with the Brighton Middle School Jazz band and it was a very special moment for me at the time.

While I don’t think any middle schools will be performing this year, there is no shortage of high school jazz bands playing at the festival this year, and all of these performances are free. If you have the time, consider stopping by at one of them. Watching young rising musicians perform is uplifting, and I’m sure these bands would appreciate a crowd!

Frank De Blase is Rochester Beacon music writer. Jess Williams is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at Ithaca College. All Rochester Beacon Jazz Fest articles are collected here.

The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

2 thoughts on “Artists to watch at the Jazz Fest

  1. Frankie , not to nitpick man , but Mr Tabackin is credited for playing on Tom Wait’s “Small Change” album. I don’t see him credited for “The Heart of Saturday Night” , ….but I could be wrong! Still a hep cat for sure!

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